One of the great things about being president of Farm Bureau is the opportunity it gives me to travel Nebraska. And while there is great diversity in Nebraska, the one constant in my travels last summer and fall was the reality that the drought touched everyone in our state in one way or another. Water use restrictions, well problems and fires that ravaged parts of western Nebraska were making headlines more than any of us would like.
While southeastern Nebraska has been fortunate to receive much needed moisture, drought conditions continue to grip much of the central and western parts of our state. The most recent national weather service report predicts above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation for much of Nebraska in the months of June, July and August. The report is a stark reminder that when it comes to the drought, we are not out of the woods yet.
As a farmer, I tend to get questions about how I use water on the farm. Those questions are magnified in the height of a drought when water restrictions are being enacted on my non-farm neighbors living town. Enactment of emergency water restrictions in neighboring communities is not news welcomed by anyone, especially farm neighbors.
Regardless of drought, water conservation and efficient use of water is a goal farmers and ranchers share with their neighbors. Over the years farmers have aggressively worked to make changes to better manage how we use water. Those changes have been made to not only help us become better farmers, but a core belief that we share in the responsibility for preserving water resources for the next generation of water users, including those that don’t farm.
These on-farm changes are numerous and have required significant investments in new technologies, tillage practices and management strategies. From irrigation equipment to the very seeds we put in the ground, everything we do is now targeted to getting the most out of every drop of water.
Today we can measure a crop’s water use, water need and the existing soil moisture content; and do so in real time. Monitoring and data gathering allows us to make timely irrigation decisions conserving water and enhancing efficiency. Other new technologies in seed varieties, developed through research at land-grant universities like the University of Nebraska and private companies, have led to more drought tolerant seeds that allow farmers to use less water and still achieve optimum crop yields. Tillage practices, cropping rotations and adjusting plant populations are all management decisions farmers and ranchers now employ to save water.
The good news is that these strategies have been paying off. Data from the U.S. Geological Survey shows total water use for irrigation in Nebraska actually decreased from 2000 to 2005, despite a growth in the number of irrigated acres during that same time period. Moreover, the Middle Republican Natural Resources District located in southwest Nebraska, reports groundwater irrigators in the district used an average of 9.5 inches of water per acre from 2005-2012. To put that number in context, my understanding is the citywide average water use in Lincoln equates to roughly 12 inches of water per acre annually.
When sacrifices are made by our urban neighbors related to water conservation, we in agriculture don’t take them for granted. The water we use is critical to our ability to help raise food for the people of our state, nation and world. Despite all of our efforts, we can’t escape the reality that we can’t raise food without water. Having said that, we all have a role in managing Nebraska’s water resources. Preventing impacts to other water users is one of the many reasons farmers and ranchers continue to put their time, effort and resources into doing what’s right as water stewards. At the end of the day, conserving water is truly is a commitment that we all share.
—– Steve Nelson, president, Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation